The ubiquitous Francis Collins

Collins has another published interview in Salon. It’s sad, actually—in every new interview, he says pretty much the same thing, but he digs himself in a little deeper. I ordered his book the other day, and now I’m beginning to regret it; it’s beginning to sound like trite Christian apologetics with no depth, no self-reflection, no insight…just compound anecdotes intended to rationalize a conclusion he has arrived at with no evidence. It’s distressingly anti-scientific.

For instance, we get an expansion of his hiking anecdote:

You also write about a seminal experience you had a little later, when you were hiking in the Cascade Mountains in Washington.

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

When it was just a story about being awe-struck by nature, I could sympathize. I can share that feeling, and I can appreciate that the world around us is impressive and inspiring. But now we discover that Collins is impressed that it is a “three part” waterfall, and he’s suddenly driven to embrace the Trinity. You have got to be kidding me. If it had been a two part waterfall, would he have converted to Zoroastrianism?

This is unconvincing apologetics that will only be persuasive to those who have already accepted the silly dogma of a triune god. This is the patent goofiness of an irrational believer. But hey, that’s OK, he can believe whatever he wants, and I get to call it ridiculous…what I find even more damning, though, is his hypocrisy and inconsistency. Early in the interview, he makes a statement that should have haunted all of his later comments.

A lot of scientists say religious faith is irrational. Your fellow biologist Richard Dawkins calls it “the great cop-out.” How do you respond to these critics of religion?

Certainly this has been one of the more troubling developments in the last several decades. I think that commits an enormous act of hubris, to say — because we’re now so wise about evolution and how life forms are related to each other — that we have no more need of God. Science investigates the natural world. If God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world. It is a complete misuse of the tools of science to apply them to this discussion.

Note that he’s saying two things clearly here: God is outside the natural world, and that you can’t apply science to the issue. Watch how he subsequently destroys his own position.

Remember, it is a misuse of the tools of science to apply them to the question of the existence of gods.

The subtitle of your book refers to “evidence for belief.” What do you find to be the most compelling evidence that there is, in fact, a Supreme Being?

First of all, we have this very solid conclusion that the universe had an origin, the Big Bang. Fifteen billion years ago, the universe began with an unimaginably bright flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point. That implies that before that, there was nothing. I can’t imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself. And the very fact that the universe had a beginning implies that someone was able to begin it. And it seems to me that had to be outside of nature. And that sounds like God.

A second argument: When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants — the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc. — that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That’s a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we’re here. And that does make you wonder — gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.

You are talking about a God who intervenes in the world — the presence of a personal God.

Right. I haven’t quite finished my list of evidences. I started with the deist ones –which are the Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle — very strong arguments, by the way. But that doesn’t get you to a personal God. The argument that gets me is the one I read in those first few pages of “Mere Christianity,” which is the existence of the Moral Law, something good and holy, that in our hearts has somehow written that same law about what is good and what is evil and what we should do. That doesn’t sound like a God that wandered off once the universe got started and is now doing something else. That sounds like a God who really cares about us and wishes somehow to have a relationship with us.

Apparently, it is wrong to use the tools of science to argue against gods, but Francis Collins has some kind of divine dispensation to misuse science to argue for gods. The Big Bang and Anthropic Principle are not strong arguments for a deity at all, and certainly not the detailed dogma Collins accepts—for that, he has to resort to the pratings of a most unconvincing theologian. This is weak. Good for the interviewer for at least noticing that the subtitle of Collins’ book directly contradicts his assertion that you can’t use science in this argument.

The other excuse he used is that god is outside the natural world. Look how quickly he abandons that pretense:

But how can you as a scientist accept some of these ideas in the Bible that cut so directly against the laws of nature?

I have no trouble at all. Again, the big decision is, do you believe in God? If you believe in God, and if God is more than nature, then there’s no reason that God could not stage an invasion into the natural world, which — to our limited perspective — would appear to be a miracle.

And yet, this does seem to be a case where religion and science are in fundamental conflict. Everything we know from science says this is not possible. The Virgin Birth is not possible. The resurrection of a dead person — no matter how special — is not possible. It’s never happened in the history of the world, as far as we know.

Again, that would be the perspective if one had decided upfront that the only worldview that can be brought to bear on any circumstance is the scientific one. In that situation, all miracles have to be impossible. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to accept the spiritual worldview, then in certain rare circumstances — I don’t think they should be common — the miraculous could have a non-zero probability.

I say that if God can ‘invade’ the natural world, then he is not outside that world at all, and the nature and causes and effects of that invasion certainly are subject to scientific scrutiny. I’ll go further and plainly state that his instances of a supernatural intervention are without exception unconvincing, vague, subjective, rooted in the corrupted garbling of history, and more reasonably explained by entirely natural causes…and that scientists should not be so gullible as to so easily accept such feeble nonsense as evidence for a myth. His claim that “god is outside the natural world” was simply a dodge to evade the rigor expected of scientific claims.

Collins the theist is no scientist. When he puts on the silly hat of a Christian, he also abandons the mindset of an honest scientist.

One more thing I have to mention, because it is so absurd. Guess who we can blame for Intelligent Design?

Why do you say those arguments have been started by scientists? Because some of these scientists — like Dawkins — have said the theory of evolution leads to atheism?

That’s been a very scary statement coming back towards the religious community, where people have felt they can’t just leave that hanging in the air. There has to be a response. If you look at the history of the intelligent design movement, which is now only 15 or 16 years old, you will see that it was a direct response to claims coming from people like Dawkins. They could not leave this claim unchallenged — that evolution alone can explain all of life’s complexity. It sounded like a godless outcome.

If only those godless atheists and agnostics and secular humanists would shut up, and allow the Christians to profess that god guided all of evolution, that there is no chance, that we are created by Jesus, Intelligent Design would disappear.

It’s true. It would be because we’d all be creationists.

Now Norbizness gets into the act. Collins is toast.

So does Amanda.


  1. #1 Byron
    August 7, 2006

    There’s also this contradiction. First he says,

    But God is not so limited. What appears random to us — such as an asteroid hitting the earth — need not have been random to Him at all. And in that very moment of creation, being as He is, outside of the time limitations, he knew everything, including our having this conversation.

    But then when asked “Is this to say that God set in motion the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs so that human beings could eventually evolve?” he replies:

    Oh goodness, that’s getting into more specific details than I would dare to imagine. But I would say that God had a plan for creatures like us. Need they have looked exactly like us? …. In which case perhaps it didn’t matter so much whether that ended up occurring in mammals or some other life form.

    Which, of course, contradicts the idea that God knew even the details of the conversation two mammals, humans even, would be having billions of years after God began the universe.

  2. #2 quork
    August 7, 2006

    But I would say that God had a plan for creatures like us. Need they have looked exactly like us?

    Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…

    Collins has committed blasphemy!

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    August 7, 2006

    Not a thing. It’s all us damned atheists pushing people into creationism.

  4. #4 Keith Douglas
    August 7, 2006

    He seems (as usual) to misunderstand both probabilistic reasoning – P(A|A) = 1 (duh) and the big bang. As usual.

    Incidentally, I just finished reading a slightly more sophisticated work from many years ago that alas also comes to similar conclusions. Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge. He makes all kinds of useful remarks (for instance, the central thesis of much of the book is the tacit nature of a lot of knowledge, a very important point), and we can debate his stuff about what he considers objectivity. But when it comes to biology and the place of humans in the natural world … yikes. He seems to somehow think that mind-body dualism evolved somehow. Moreover, he claims, quite openly, that humans are clearly the summit of creation, and their existence (due to their ability to be teleological) itself demonstrates a telos in the world. Depressing, from someone who is otherwise quite a responsible and clever thinker. (I guess he’s an example of a scientist on holiday, to use Bunge’s phrase.)

  5. #5 Steve LaBonne
    August 7, 2006

    If Polanyi was on holiday, Collins must be on a year-long Himalayan trek…

    P.S. Other than the cringe-making dualism I also have long admired Personal Knowledge. Glad to see it’s still read.

  6. #6 George
    August 7, 2006

    Dear Mr. Collins:

    Umm, “God” is inside your head; therefore, “he” is not outside the natural world. In fact, you made him up! Gee, there he is when you go to church (oh so comforting to think about), then he’s gone when you think about what you are going to have for dinner, then he’s back again when you go hiking in the Cascades. Gee, he can go everywhere!

    The “miraculous could have a non-zero probability.” Oooooh, very clever. Impressive. Did you make that up yourself?

    Congratulations. You sound just like every other wing nut on the planet. Stop. Embarrassing. Yourself.

  7. #7 Ginger Yellow
    August 7, 2006

    “This is unconvincing apologetics that will only be persuasive to those who have already accepted the silly dogma of a triune god. ”

    Well according to everybody’s favourite cosmological IDist, David Heddle, all apologetics will only be persuasive to those who have already accepted the silly dogma of a triune god. Which makes me wonder why they bother at all.

  8. #8 Shygetz
    August 7, 2006

    Actually, if I remember my long-ago undergrad education about the Big Bang correctly, we don’t know what it was originally like. The equations of relativity cease to be useful once the curvature of space-time increases beyond a certain point (i.e. once the universe is smaller than a certain size), so we cannot say what happened before a certain point after the Big Bang (I think it’s something like before 10^-30 second, but don’t quote me). I think this is one of the big driving forces behind research into quantum gravity.

    Now, someone who actually knows something about this subject should come along and tell me exactly how wrong I am…

  9. #9 windy
    August 7, 2006

    And why does he assume that the energy released was in the visible spectrum (ie a “bright flash”)?

    Must be because of “Let there be light”…

  10. #10 David Mazel
    August 7, 2006

    Collins writes that when he experienced his epiphany “it was a great sense of relief.” The Christian conversion experience in a nutshell: If it feels good, believe it.

  11. #11 Silmarillion
    August 7, 2006

    Fifteen billion years ago, the universe began with an unimaginably bright flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point. That implies that … I can’t imagine how … And that implies that … And it seems to me … And that sounds like God.

    Irrefutable evidence there. I can’t imagine how anyone else isn’t convinced.

  12. #12 quork
    August 7, 2006

    What do you say to those evolutionists — people like E.O. Wilson and Dan Dennett — who look to evolutionary reasons for why human beings have come to believe in religion. They say religion is clearly a very powerful bonding force. It unites people. And even moral values like altruism have a genetic component. It may have evolved to help people related to you because there’s a shared genetic interest.
    I have trouble with the argument that altruism can be completely explained on evolutionary grounds. Evolutionists now universally agree — I think Dawkins and Wilson and Dennett would all agree — that evolution does not operate on the species. It operates on the individual. If that’s the case, then it does seem that in any given circumstance, the individual’s evolutionary drive should be to preserve their ability to reproduce at all costs. They’re simply — as Dawkins has described them — a way of propagating DNA. That’s what we are. But that’s not what I see in my own heart. And it’s not what I see in those around me. I see Oskar Schindler, who sacrifices his own potential for long- term survival by saving Jews — not even people of his own faith. When I see Mother Teresa dedicating herself to help others, not even of her own tribe, we admire that. What is that all about? If I’m walking down the banks of a river and I hear someone who’s drowning calling for help — even if I’m not a good swimmer — I feel this urge that I should try to help, even at the risk of my own life. Where is that coming from?

    Can Collins really be that uneducated about research into kin selection and such? If, as Collins channels C.S. Lewis, there is a universal moral sense, then why is so much of public discourse spent in arguing about morality?

    BTW, E.O. Wilson has said recently that he is going to advocate for a comeback of some form of group selection.

  13. #13 PaulC
    August 7, 2006

    As soon as I saw the Salon interview, I figured a Pharyngula post would follow shortly. Collins is entitled to his beliefs, but I have to file his justifications under “Even smart people believe some of the darnedest things.” (along with somebody like Kary Mullis, say). I’m familiar enough with all of Collins’s reasons for believing that I doubt anything he could tell me would suddenly give me a new insight.

    First off, _Mere Christianity_. I eventually got around to reading it some years back. I am not prepared to rebut it, but the outlook was familiar to me from having read some of Lewis’s other work when I was fairly religious. (Actually, when I think of C.S. Lewis, what comes to mind first is a scene in a Philip K. Dick novel where one character is exasperated by another’s tendency to begin statements with ‘C.S. Lewis would say…’. And in some ways, I have to say that PKD inspires me to greater spiritual fervor than Lewis ever could; Lewis is just so frickin’ bourgeois; it’s easy to think you know all the answers when you’re an Oxford don).

    Second, that revelation while hiking. If I had a dime for every spiritual moment in my life… well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could probably get a nice bottle of cabernet. One I remember quite vividly was in Switzerland sitting through a Catholic mass in German, a language I do not know, drifting off into a revery and suddenly bolting to alertness at the consecration, when the priest said “Das ist mein Leib.” It was really as if I’d experienced a repetition of the pentecost and somehow been awakened for the holiest moment of the mass. But… OK… let’s look at the evidence. I had studied a little German, and been exposed to the word “Leib” meaning “body.” the phrase “Das ist mein” is close enough to English that I could guess what he was saying. I also knew the basic pattern of the Catholic mass by heart and it is the same in every language. But it *felt* like God’s presence at the time. That doesn’t make it real.

    Third, Collins bases his belief on people just being much better morally than evolution would lead him to expect. It sort of reminds me of that song, Simon Smith and his Dancing Bear: “it’s just amazing how fair people can be.” I wish! People are sort of altruistic and definitely empathetic. You see somebody drowning and you want to save them. But you can’t swim… so most likely you don’t try, and that’s probably a good decision. You feel terrible for the rest of your life, but you also have to go on living and devote a lot of effort to solacing yourself that after all, you did not know how to swim. That’s about the extent of human empathy. Or worse: people can react like the onlookers in the Kitty Genevieve case. Maybe they want to help, who knows? But they could have easily called the cops and they didn’t.

    Human cooperation is entirely consistent with people adapting tendencies for individual success. People are most successful when they build on the social network of other humans; thus, pure selfishness is a maladaptive tendency. Even criminals do better in gangs than as loners. I would also ask how much morality is even innate, and how much is entirely a product of social conditioning. People believe plenty of maladaptive things just because they were told them during their formative years. Nature and nurture are both very powerful forces in shaping human behavior, and there is no reason to assume all human behavior is explained by evolution.

    Finally… even if you buy all of Collins’s arguments, how exactly does that lead you to Christianity rather than some other religion? I am sympathetic to the tendencies that make people want to believe in religion. Even as a believing Catholic schoolboy I never had any problem reconciling evolution with religion. I agree with Collins that if there was a God and he had a plan, then evolution would be a perfectly reasonable way to implement it. But what makes me doubt my religious belief is that so many otherwise smart and sensible people around the world have believed very different things. Except for some shared notions of virtue, they cannot all be right. I reject the chauvinist conclusion that my religion is right. It could be, but then I guess I would just be very lucky to have been born into it. The most likely conclusion seems to me to be that most of it is wrong.

  14. #14 PaulC
    August 7, 2006

    Ken, I would make a distinction between biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy, although I think its also clear that Collins advocates neither view.

    It’s clear to me that a science who tries to take the bible literally is going to have trouble working outside of a highly circumscribed sandbox–but even somebody like that could contribute to science, for instance, if they stuck to designing lab equipment (I’m thinking of somebody like Forest Mims).

    The notion of biblical inerrancy is (at least in my understanding as a former Catholic) that the Bible is the word of God, not the work of human authors, and says exactly what God intended for it to say (amazingly, despite the different source texts and translations). That makes it significant and sacred, but does not require it to be a historical document or a science textbook. Human teachers use allegory, so why shouldn’t God? I was raised to think of the Bible this way, and I don’t see why it is considered such a copout position, both among atheists and fundamentalists. I mean, there is very little written by even the best human author that was intended to be taken literally in its entirety. Metaphor is part of language.

    I would say that it’s not such a big deal for a scientist to believe in biblical inerrancy as above. I think the main problem for a scientist is not what to believe but how to make sure that you don’t let your non-scientific beliefs slip into your scientific output.

  15. #15 Gerard Harbison
    August 7, 2006

    I’ve met a lot of scientists like this. They can be quite rational in a lab, but when they get out into the real world, they somehow think they are owed some-type of irrational bounty, where you now must allow them to speculate as they wish. It borders on the Ol’ Fashion, “Call to Authority.”

    But it’s worse that that. Collins’ argument for religion is based at least partly on false concepts about an area of science that directly impacts his own research area. How can he possibly, as a geneticist, believe that the primary unit of selection is the individual? How can he assert that evolution cannot account for altruism? Is he entirely ignorant of the last 40 years of research in population genetics?

    Moreover, if evolution does not account for altruism, how does he reconcile that with his ‘BioLogos’ idea that God set the whole shebang moving and then stood back? Altruism either arose by natural, which means evolutionary means, or it was placed in humans supernaturally. One or the other.

  16. #16 NickM
    August 7, 2006

    I recently bought the book God? by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. It’s a debate between a Christian and an atheist, with each side allowed to respond to the other’s points. Craig raises some of the same arguments as Collins, which struck me as some of the best arguments a theist can make; but Sinnott-Armstrong takes him apart in detail. It’s a pretty good read.

  17. #17 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    August 7, 2006

    PZ, Collins was on Talk of the Nation Science Friday last week.

    And FYI If I saw a large three part frozen waterfall I wouldn’t be falling to me knees to accept some fable, I’d be strapping on my crampons and grabbing my ice axes.

  18. #18 Andrew Mogendorff
    August 7, 2006

    You guys might be interested to know that the documentary “30 Days” on the FX channel this week features an atheist living with a committed (ahem) Christian family for a month. The show was created by Morgan Spurlock who wrote “Supersize Me”.

  19. #19 roger
    August 7, 2006

    Maybe some scientists here would like post a comment at this DEMENTED FUCKWITS blog:

    Chuck Colson writes, “The headline was positively gleeful. On the website of the left-wing group DefCon this week, we read: ‘Science Wins the Day in Kansas.’ In fact, just the opposite happened. Science lost in Kansas to zealots who want to keep kids in the dark about the scientific controversy over evolution. In last week’s school board primary election in Kansas, two conservatives who support teaching the evidence both for and against evolution lost to candidates who oppose such teaching. These losses mean Kansas will now have an anti-science majority: members who want to slam the door on free academic inquiry.”

  20. #20 Molly, NYC
    August 7, 2006

    I didn’t bother to read it. Much I respect Collins, someone talking about the specifics of their religious views with the assumption that it’ll be meaningful to the reader/listener is about as enlightening or entertaining as someone insisting that you hear about this really cool dream they had.

  21. #21 Rosewater
    August 7, 2006

    Collins, as do most people who “find faith,” uses a classic “conversion narrative.” These narratives are often used by the converted to demonstrate the “power” of the conversion moment (note that is must be reduced to a moment). In discussion with many people who have converted this narrative form is almost always found. As with dream narratives, conversion narratives are re-analzyed events that conform to a specific narrative schema. They circulate because they give evidence to certain underlying assumptions that many Christians have (namely the momentaneous nature of conversion and that each is unique/individual [of course that they are a stock storylines is outside of the question]). But of course, like the telling of dreams, it is post factum evidence and has been re-analyzed to fit a particular narrative structure. This is not evidence of “God(s),” it is evidence of the power of narrative structures to frame our understandings of the world.

  22. #22 Great White Wonder
    August 7, 2006


    Dawkins, by peddling of an absurdly reductionist and ultradarwinian view of evolution, and unnecesarily entagling evolution with the whole darn “God” issue, has fed ID, youbetcha.

    Who do you think has been more helpful to the ID movement, Richard “Religion is Stupid” Dawkins or George “Jesus is My Favorite Philosopher” Bush?

    There is “feeding ID” and then there is “feeding ID.” When a scientist like Dawkins says that he finds religion worthless at best and explains why, he is only “feeding ID” to the extent that ID is a religious movement which will use ANY statement of non-Christian opinion as “evidence” that the gay materialists are comin’ to ruin the country.

    As for Dawkins’ “absurdly reductionist and ultradarwinian view of evolution,” that is a scientific question and, since the ID movement religion-driven, wholly anti-scientific and devoid of scientific content, the idea that Dawkin’s scientific views “feed ID” any more than someone else’s scientific ideas is pure bullcrap.

    So Vargas, what was your point?

  23. #23 Alexander Vargas
    August 7, 2006

    Isn’t it obvious? When you say crap like “genes created us, body and mind” or “we are but lumbering robots controlled by genes” and then label that crap the “evolutionary science” that “leads to atheism” you are setting it up pretty nicely for people to get confused into a role for god ins cience. If Bush wants to say that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, there is no bad mix there. He is not implying by that that science is crap. It is Dawkins, who wrongly uses evolution to say all religion is crap, that plunges evolution into the silly G debate that is truly none of its business

  24. #24 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 7, 2006

    It reads like highfalutin’ apologetics (“My God is bigger than that.”) with a special condemning of athiests. “I think many of the current battles between atheists and fundamentalists have really been started by the scientific community. This is an enormous tragedy of our present time, that we’ve given the stage to the extremists.” As often said that calling the atheist position religious or extremist is like calling bald a hair color or an intense hair color.

    But I’m especially disappointed that a PhD in physics plays as fast and loose with his physics. He uses all the usual cosmological and teleological arguments, but he also invokes the anthropic principle in a meaningless manner. In his case he doesn’t claim more than the weak principle, but that doesn’t imply any teleology. That there are life makes the fact that the laws and parameters of nature permits life really unsurprising.

    His description of bigbang is a little off. It happened 13.7 billion years ago, and the assumption of a singularity can’t be verified without a theory of quantum gravity.

    But where he really screws up is when he both allow for physics and teleology:

    “Are you saying that God set the natural laws in motion so that somehow, billions of years later, humans would evolve? There was intent, there was purpose to humans evolving, and God made it so?

    “That is part of my faith — to believe that God did have an interest in the appearance, somewhere in the universe, of creatures with intelligence, with free will, with the Moral Law, with the desire to seek Him.”"

    This combination gives a very peculiar idea of nature. Quantum mechanics has a fundamental randomness that even gods can’t fully control within the bounds of formal theory. It has to have no hidden variables to remain a local theory compatible with causality through lorentz invariance. The only way to resolve that contradiction between hidden mechanisms and locality is to have the unneccessary assumption of a supernatural being simultaneously run the whole show. The Cosmic Cheater strikes again! But what was Collins saying about some Mighty Moral Law?

  25. #25 somnilista, FCD
    August 7, 2006

    His description of bigbang is a little off. It happened 13.7 billion years ago, and the assumption of a singularity can’t be verified without a theory of quantum gravity.

    The latest on
    Universe Might be Bigger and Older than Expected

    A research team led by Alceste Bonanos at the Carnegie Institution of Washington has found that the Triangulum Galaxy, also known as M33, is about 15 percent farther away from our own Milky Way than previously calculated.

    The new finding implies that the universe is instead about 15.8 billion years old and about 180 billion light-years wide.

  26. #26 Great White Wonder
    August 7, 2006


    The argument that gets me is the one I read in those first few pages of “Mere Christianity,” which is the existence of the Moral Law, something good and holy, that in our hearts has somehow written that same law about what is good and what is evil and what we should do. That doesn’t sound like a God that wandered off once the universe got started and is now doing something else. That sounds like a God who really cares about us and wishes somehow to have a relationship with us.

    Huh. Sounds to me like a British dude on some headtrip about how wonderful his personal brand of religion is.

    Maybe we should arrange for Collins to meet with Tom Cruise and compare notes. A real “meeting of the minds,” a la Steve Allen’s old TV show.

  27. #27 PaulC
    August 7, 2006

    Koray: I agree with you that the Bible is problematic on a whole range of grounds.

    What I disagree with is the tendency of at least some atheists to side with fundamentalists on the view that a respectful non-literal reading of the Bible is a copout. I think, for instance, that Genesis has never borne out a literal reading because there are clearly two contradictory creation stories. It has little to do with any modern scientific developments. Traditionally, it has been read for its moral teachings, not for insights into animal husbandry or methods of weather prediction–topics of interest even to its ancient readers on which it touches but gives essentially no useful information. True, people might have insisted “It’s all true.” but I’m pretty sure it’s a modern tendency to go around backfitting scientific observations to the Bible the way creationists do.

    For example, Homer’s Odyssey doesn’t bear out a literal reading either even though it has been thought of at various times and by various peoples as a historical account and as a morally edifying tale. I’m of the view that it is neither, but it would be a terrible blow to our heritage to lose all trace of this great epic.

    If I say that about the Odyssey, people accept it. If I say it about the Bible, people get mad at me: fundies for comparing the Bible to Greek mythology; some atheists for suggesting that the Bible has any kind of redeeming value. I think this is sort of silly. It’s clear to me that the main point of the Bible is to capture the values of a people and a faith, not to tell you how nature works. Admittedly, some of it is intended to be a record of other information such as genealogies. It’s a hodge-podge of things, although science and mathematics are largely missing and what is there is almost entirely wrong. I don’t think it is a copout to eschew a literal interpretation, because this is in many ways the least plausible reading.

  28. #28 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 7, 2006


    It is generally regarded that the number of 13.7 billion year for the universe is an extremely good and tight number. It includes combining several theories a huge number of observations. ( See for example )

    The article reports a single observation by a new method that needs to be expanded and verified. It is not uncommon that such observations are modified later when the method is better understood.

    The article itself cites the wellregarded Lawrence Krauss giving caution: “Things fit right now very well for a Hubble constant of a low 70s,” Krauss said in a telephone interview. “It corresponds very well with the age of globular clusters as we’ve determined them and the age of the universe. It would be hard, although not impossible, to change things by 15 percent.” Not exactly an acclamation.

  29. #29 Gerard Harbison
    August 7, 2006

    When you say crap like “genes created us, body and mind” or “we are but lumbering robots controlled by genes” and then label that crap the “evolutionary science” that “leads to atheism” you are setting it up pretty nicely for people to get confused into a role for god ins cience.

    So Vargas believes that something else influences the progress of embryogenesis aside from genes (and the uterine environment)?

    Please be specific: what, when, and how?

  30. #30 Gerard Harbison
    August 7, 2006

    And has he shown us the calculations of how if one fundamental physical constant was only 10^-6 or 10^-12 off, the resulting Universe would be uninhabitable?

    I’ve always taken their word for this, but now I think of it, I can’t see why, say, a 0.1% error in Planck’s constant would radically change the universe. And the Boltzmann’s constant is really just the proportionality factor connecting temperature and energy; I can’t see why the universe wouldn’t withstand a small change in that. Speed of light, ditto. Value of the fundamental charge, ditto.

  31. #31 Alexander Vargas
    August 7, 2006

    The scheme of selfish genes is nothing but reductionist. Read Gould. Mayr. It only works if genes are not context-dependent on their effects on the phenotype. Which of course, is false.
    I dont know if jesus was real (probably only half real if at all) but reagradless that which people know as the “teachings of jesus” have, whether you want to admit it or not, a humanistic philosophical component. But you guys treat him like just some dirty hippie. Thats unfair, if you care to think a bit about it.
    Can’t take a few words of contrary opinion, PZ? You feel like shooing me off, already???
    And conflating me with the deist enemy? Hahaha you now that is false, that I am an atheist. See, Its all about “looks” and “siding” for the extremist.
    Aaah well. OK now. Bye bye then

  32. #32 Alexander Vargas
    August 7, 2006


    All the rest of the cell that is not the genes.

    Its not just “cell-putty”, ya know

  33. #33 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 7, 2006

    “And has he shown us the calculations of how if one fundamental physical constant was only 10^-6 or 10^-12 off, the resulting Universe would be uninhabitable?”

    Since I don’t remember any numbers I googled Wikipedia and it is typically mentioned numbers like 2 % (for the strong nuclear force ) to 4 % (for the fine structure constant ). So yes, he seems to be sloppy here too.

    “But you guys treat him like just some dirty hippie.”

    Actually, I thought he was crucified because he was considered to be his time equivalent of a terrorist.

  34. #34 cserpent
    August 7, 2006

    I’ll take logical fallacies for $200 Alex:

    I can’t imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself.

    What is an argument from personal incredulity?

    I’ll take logically fallacies for $400:

    When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming.

    What is affirming the consequent?

    I’ll take logically fallacies for $600:

    And the very fact that the universe had a beginning implies that someone was able to begin it.

    What is begging the question?

    I’ll take logical fallacies for $800:

    If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it… It seems almost impossible that we’re here.

    What is an appeal to probability?

    I’ll take logically fallacies for $1000:

    I have trouble with the argument that altruism can be completely explained on evolutionary grounds. …evolution does not operate on the species. It operates on the individual. … to preserve their ability to reproduce at all costs.

    What are false dichotomy and straw man arguments?


  35. #35 AndyS
    August 7, 2006

    You all could lighten up. In Collins you have an extremely visible scientist and Christian who says (paraphrasing) “evolution is as good and well supported as any theory gets.” Yet you feel the need to kick him around anyway because he’s not an atheist? Reminds me of some fussy parent in the 1960′s saying to her teenage daughter, “Do you really have to wear a skirt that short?”

    Seems like a page from W’s book: you’re either with us or agin’ us.

  36. #36 Great White Wonder
    August 7, 2006

    Reasonable? With all the waste and extinctions? How is billions of years and billions upon billions of lost life reasonable?

    I’ve never understood this argument.

    Neither have I. Your brain has to be wired to accept that anything that is impressive in any way can reasonably be attributed to God. If it’s impressive in a good way, then it’s due to God’s desire for goodness. If it’s impressive in a bad way, it’s party of God’s “mysterious plan”.

    Let the record show: it’s 2006 and humans are still mostly willfully ignorant stooges reciting bullshit scripts which were penned centuries ago by even stupider people sitting around in shit-stained tunics while women and slaves washed the shit out of their spare shit-stained tunics.

  37. #37 thwaite
    August 7, 2006

    Vargas’s published paper (which he cited in another thread) shows affiliation with a Chilean University. Despite the ideals for science to be an internationally coherent enterprise, there are distinct national styles in everything from math to (perhaps especially) biology – and biology also has a separate history of distortions for national cultural agenda, e.g. Lysenko in the USSR. Chile has characteristically cultivated theoretical biologists such as Francisco Varela who push a ‘systems’ approach to biology as an alternative to reductionism, according to the Chilean ecologist R. Nespolo who published a cautionary article in Revista Chilena de Historia Natural in 2003. Nespolo’s title reveals to Chilean readers what is here obvious: “Evolution by Natural Selection: more evidence than ever before”. I don’t know much about the Chilean milieau which led to this separate history, however.

    Turning from the population to the individual: objections to reductionism arise among psychologists also (I’ve mentioned Caporael’s work elsewhere). An otherwise respectable cognitive psychologist, Keith Stanovich, came out in 2004 with THE ROBOT’S REBELLION: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin, a title alluding to Dawkins’ lumbering robots image (didn’t *anybody* read his subsequent EXTENDED PHENOTYPE book?). The rebellion seems to involve a distinction between “the autonomous subsystems” in cogntion which he can’t deny look awfully adaptive and homologous to other animals’ behavioral traits, versus our specialized cognitive ability to plan longer term and thus do weird choice tradeoffs including foregoing reproduction altogether. I wasn’t persuaded, but it was interesting for a treatment of the peculiar human case.

    Dawkins’ metaphors are provocative, sometimes productively.

  38. #38 cserpent
    August 7, 2006

    AndyS wrote:

    Yet you feel the need to kick him around anyway because he’s not an atheist?

    No. He’s being kicked because he explicitly blames a subset of scientists who happen also to be athiests for the antiscience movement in this country:

    Collins says:

    They could not leave this claim unchallenged — that evolution alone can explain all of life’s complexity. It sounded like a godless outcome.

    It’s great that he is a prominent scientist and a supporter of teaching evolution in biology classes, but…

    He states that science and religion don’t mix and subsequently he mixes them.

    He conflates evolution and natural selection, just like an antievolution creationist.

    He argues against an evolutionary origin for altruism while demonstrating no knowledge or understanding of the research on the subject.

    He claims as a scientist to have evidence for supernatural causation, implies that his evidence is scientific, but presents his so-called evidence in the form of logical fallacies.

    He must be aware that his prominence as a scientist will give him considerable credibility with lay persons and some scientists, yet he uses that credibility, specifically his position as a scientist, promote his religious beliefs.

    These are all good reasons for (metaphorical) swift kicks to the head.

  39. #39 PaulC
    August 7, 2006


    I agree with Collins that [purely hypothetically and probably counterfactually] if there was a God and he had a plan, then evolution would be a perfectly reasonable way to implement it


    Reasonable? With all the waste and extinctions? How is billions of years and billions upon billions of lost life reasonable?

    It depends on your utility model. I can easily imagine that matter, energy, space, and time are cheap, whereas divine attention is precious. By analogy, I occasionally find myself running a computer program to solve a problem by brute force enumeration of millions of mostly obviously failing cases when I could get the same answer using pencil and paper just by thinking a little harder. You could call that “wasteful” (all those cases that I could have easily ruled out) but actually I am making a better judgment of which resources are cheapest. I try to avoid using my brain to do things easy enough for a computer to do.

    Granted, it is a little hard to introduce cost models when talking about an allegedly all powerful being; finite costs make no sense. But by the same token, I don’t see how you would argue that one solution is more wasteful than another.

    Another thought: many if not most scientists would agree that the aesthetic value of the universe lies in the fact that it can be understood in terms of relatively few principles. Any reasonably powerful deity could create human intelligence in a small “non-wasteful” universe, but it would probably require lots of special cases. It may be (in fact I think it probably is true) that a universe of uniform physical laws that can evolve intelligence would by necessity have lots of “wasted” space.

    Again, what’s your cost model? I think that many galaxies of “wasted” universe are far cheaper than introducing even one special case into the laws of the universe just to avoid it.

    This should not be taken as an endorsement for Collins’s view, but just an explanation of why I see evolution as not contradictory to the existence of God, though it’s obviously not to be confused with supporting evidence.

  40. #40 dkon
    August 7, 2006

    The biggest problem with Collins: his argument from “Moral Law”, the alleged presence of innate ethical beliefs in human beings, is structurally idenitical to the irreducible complexity canard of ID. It’s saying: look at this purty thing, I can’t see how it could have evolved, therefore it was created by my favorite supreme being. So, in addition to his apparent ignorance of sociobiological research, he promulgates the same ol’ God of the Gaps.

    While I’m of the opinion that the proprietor of this blog can be too quick to go from “I don’t believe in a god” to “anyone who does is a dumbass”, in this case I think the opprobium is richly deserved.

  41. #41 Great White Wonder
    August 7, 2006


    I’m not aware of any oath scientists take only speak as scientists about science.

    Nice strawman. I’ll ignore it.

    He’s a human being and is coping with life by latching onto a very mild Christian framework. Who cares?

    Evangelical Christianity is “very mild”? He wrote a fucking book devoted mainly to promoting his religion. Seen any relatively high profile Quaker scientists doing that recently?

    In any event, it’s obvious that some of us here care. Are we advocating that Collins be stripped of his Ph.D. and any awards and his position for this “outrage”? No, not at all. We just think some of his statements are sorta stupid and because this is a blog where such stupid statements are often discussed we are discussing them.

    I’m not sure why any of this confuses you, frankly.

  42. #42 PaulC
    August 8, 2006

    GH: I’m not sure why you impose the notion of a predetermined endpoint any reasonable notion of God’s plan. It is hardly universal to all Christian religions let alone all theistic ones. I’ll concede that if you’re a Calvinist, the universe might look like a curious way for God to go about his business. Barring that, any religion that assumes free will states explicitly that God does not have the outcome predetermined down to the last detail.

    And again, the final Christian outcome with the second coming of Jesus and so forth is clearly not a consequence of natural laws, so it’s well within the latitude of Christian belief to say that God provided humans with a natural universe within which to act and did not determine the outcome but will ultimately set it all straight using other than natural means. This was more or less the brand of Roman Catholicism I was taught and it seems more reasonable and more intellectually appealing to me that biblical literalism, though I admit there are a lot inconsistencies regarding what that free will could possibly entail if we’re a product of natural law, or how God could be omniscient and not predetermine the outcome. So I don’t really believe this now, but I do find is as reasonable as evangelical literalist views, which have always struck me as childish and unimaginative.

  43. #43 Keith Douglas
    August 8, 2006

    NickM: They may be good arguments, but they are also old. Kant was profoundly agnostic and certainly not a fan of organized religion. But when encouraged to take it seriously by his patron then we got all this stuff about the moral law. If this had been a new development in philosophy of religion, I couldn’t fault Collins for using it. But it has been around for a while now …

    natural cynic: Bertrand Russell would probably have eaten Lewis for lunch if they’d ever debated. (I suppose they could have – they were alive at the same time, after all.)

    Scott Hatfield: “but the product of science” Except that (as I have pointed out both here and on Salon) they aren’t products of science. They are in fact misrepresentations of what the relevant areas of science actually say.

    Torbjörn Larsson: From what I understand it is actually better to say that the singularity is a property of the equations. (For example, f(x) = 1/x has a singularity at x = 0.) Hence the idea that “the laws of physics break down at the singularity” is nonsense – rather our understanding breaks down and we should look for a more comprehensive theory. As for the big bang, I referenced somewhere else I believe a paper of Grünbaum’s, which is: “Poverty Of Thestic Cosmology” … good reading if one can find it. (Bunge says some similar things scattered in various places, and even Hawking has if you skip some of the bogus stuff.)

    Loren Petrich: More crucially, has he shown that the constants can vary by any mechanism? (Obviously not: that would be Nobel Prize level material, I’d think.) I feel here he’s just appealing to the Leibnizian notion of “possible worlds” here, whence he is not only being foolish about the physics but also begging the question. Similarly, so many people think of the laws of nature as being contingent. Are they? Well, in a difference sense from contignent in logic. The mistake of confusing the logical and the ontological is so rife these days (and since Aristotle, for that matter) and really ticks me off. (Since so many of the people who indulge I think are smart enough to know better.)

    John Wendt: Cheap? Tithing to many congregations can be quite expensive!

    AndyS: I attack his cluelessness because he is, well, clueless. Moreover, since he’s claimed as an example of someone who has reconciled his science with his faith, I find it important to say that he hasn’t. Why? Because (a) the truth matters and (b) misrepresenting the actual science is bound to bite you on the butt sooner or later.

  44. #44 Scott Hatfield
    August 8, 2006

    Keith Douglas:

    I agree that inferring the existence of God from the anthropic principle is not in itself a product of science; I meant merely that the observations that provide support for some version of the anthropic principle are the products of science. Collins used those products of science, but when makes his inference to God, he is not using the scientific toolkit (falsifiable hypothesis, experiments with controls, etc.). That was the distinction I was trying to make.

    Is that sensible? I value your feedback.


  45. #45 PaulC
    August 8, 2006


    You must be using an undefined term, because your usage of “god” indicates that it does not include omniscience, an attribute many people would include in their definitions.

    And many people would not include omniscience, particularly since I stipulated a “minor god.” Honestly, you people… read some greek mythology. Zeus turned himself into a bull to seduce the maiden Europa. Does that sound like something an omniscient god would do? And I don’t count Zeus as minor. Minor would be something like a god who leaves the dust bunnies under everyone’s bed. Even a god like that could probably get some time on the sort of massive supercomputer I was thinking of.

    I made a hypothetical statement that a God (admittedly capitalized) with a plan might reasonably enact it using evolution rather than do the whole thing down to the last detail. This is as reasonable as many existing religious beliefs. It is more reasonable than some. Quoting myself (and this is taken out of a context entirely unfavorable to Collins save this one concession):

    I agree with Collins that if there was a God and he had a plan, then evolution would be a perfectly reasonable way to implement it.

    Sorry, but the attempted refutations add stuff that I didn’t say. I grant GH’s point that if God wanted one particular narrow outcome (human worshippers formed precisely in his image whom he will save at one particular moment) it would be a perverse way to get it. Actually a putative God is entitled to do things in ways that seem perverse to us, but that’s a little bit of a copout. What I really mean is that I can understand a narrative in which God, the big one, carries out creation using evolution. It strikes me as a reasonable, engaging, narrative, though not one backed by empirical evidence. I like that better than the one where God put every daisy in the right place; even the most fanatical film director doesn’t have the degree of control. I.e., the reason I’m not religious isn’t because there is no potentially consistent story here. It’s that there is no empirical backing for the story, and that religious people around the world seem to have totally different stories.

    As for quork’s statement, I grant that an omniscient God wouldn’t need to run experiments, and I said as much. In fact, one huge theological problem is all the hoops people go through to reconcile an omniscient God with human free will and moral responsibility. To be honest, it looks like kind of a showstopper to me, but no where in my statement did I stipulate omniscience.

  46. #46 Great White Wonder
    August 8, 2006

    Speaking of one-note Johnnies:

    I certainly don’t agree with Collins, but I just can’t get worked up over a scientist writing a book about his religious views when he isn’t doing anything underhanded.

    Okay, Andy. You can’t get worked up. Thanks.

  47. #47 Steve LaBonne
    August 8, 2006

    The problem with group selection is that an allele can’t be favored for transmission unless it provides fitness benefits to the individuals that carry it, no matter how much it might benefit the species, or whatever unit the group-selectionist is plumping for. (In general, theoretical models that have been proposed from time to time which purportedly show the possibility of group selection have tuned out to be re-analyzable as exhibiting gene-level selection- kin selection being only the first and most famous example of such re-analysis.) The more sophisticated proponents of group selection (which pretty much means, D.S. Wilson) have invented various sorts of fancy algebra to try to square this circle, but they have let to convince most evolutionary geeneticists. The less sophisticated proponents, typically people with little background in population genetics, just ignore the problem.

  48. #48 thwaite
    August 8, 2006

    Group/individual selection: even Darwin argued for group selection in human origins (music, social coalitions, etc) – but he knew zip about genetics and didn’t have to reconcile his proposed arguments with an underlying selfish genetic system as we now have to, for example as attempted in books such as UNTO OTHERS (mentioned above) and NOT BY GENES ALONE (Richerson & Boyd). Both perspectives are essential in at least humans and possibly a few other highly social species (a few other primates, and some social carnivores).

    Vargas complains of whatever frivolous argument of national origin – hey, I resemble that remark. I tried to place your arguments into the social context they’re from (and you do emphasize context-dependent effects, aka epistasis). And I carefully included a Chilean critic of the distinctively Chilean system-theorizers such as Varela whose emphasis on autopoiesis has significantly shaped biology curricula there.

    This blog isn’t a graduate biology course but I’m impressed at the level of expertise generally shown – in particular, we’re familiar with the pros and cons of Dawkins’ arguments, which are a great deal richer than you seem familiar with – see Paul W’s comments above. You’ll find more interested readers – but not necessarily converts – if you provide a much richer rendering of your proposal (from your published abstract) “that an organism comes to be a unique organized whole of mutually correspondent parts that exist as such through realizing a particular mode of relationship with its environment, neither as a consequence of design, nor by the operation of an internal building plan or program.

    Earlier you wrote The scheme of selfish genes is nothing but reductionist. Read Gould. Mayr. It only works if genes are not context-dependent on their effects on the phenotype. Which of course, is false.

    Mayr’s criticisms of bean-bag genetics are well-known but not sufficient as a critique of Dawkins. Dawkins explicitly considered epistatic context-dependence of genetic effects in both THE SELFISH GENE and THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE (which latter does not simply dissolve the organism as you stated). At the most lucid level Dawkins invoked his insightful analogy of selection on individual genes as comparable to the selection for individual oarsmen in racing teams: the boats (organisms) each win due to the total crew effort (context), but the tally of wins for individual oarsmen over multiple races determines their inclusion in future teams. Dawkins rued his inability to express this mathematically – few readers share that regret.

  49. #49 Alexander Vargas
    August 8, 2006

    Paul W, you say
    “A lot of what you write sounds pretty much like “Dawkins is just a complete dope, and if you’re stupid enough to agree with him, so are you!”

    Lets be clear, this dichotomy is not what I m saying, no matter how forcefully I emphasize his more crappy ideas. The problem is that it is precisely these more crappy ideas of dawkins, and not his softerside, that have the ideological shine to them, that are popular and that people cling onto. Like making them believe “they already know” how evolution works through the overrated and false cartoon of the selfish genes, and of course, to connect this “triumph” of “sufficient knowledged” to a wholesale war on all religion… this is true crap , we must de able to see the frivolous motivations beneath.

  50. #50 Alexander Vargas
    August 8, 2006

    Thwaite, c’mon. Don´t tell me you haven’t read the total debunking of the crappy oarsmen metaphor done by Gould in the fat book. Oarsmen are additive, genes are not. As simple as that, Thwaite.

    By the way, that criticism of Maturana is a gossipy and not very elevated comment written by a quite ultradarwinian bloque who does not care for paleontology or development as true evolutionary science. You now, just another utradarwinian that thinks we still live in the fifties, with eyes only for equations of population genetics, oblivious to the succes of evo-devo…

    And Varela left no disciples in Chile. He lived in France for most of his carrer. Autopoiesis is taught at only one undergarduate course in Chile. But thats just too much for some ultradawinian Nespolo’s claims are quite frivolous and silly. He tries to conflate this with creationism… what a surprise!! Ultradarwinians are all cut with the same scissors.

  51. #51 Scott Hatfield
    August 8, 2006

    For those of you who still might be interested in Collins’ views and how he presents them to a body of fellow believers (as opposed to the general public), you can read his address to the American Scientific Affiliation here:

    There is also apparently videos of his address available on the ASA home page in more than one format.

    Hoping to be helpful….Scott

  52. #52 PaulC
    August 8, 2006


    This is the sort of Christian scientist we should support and encourage.

    What does “should” mean in this context? For that matter, who are “we”? Nobody is going to stop Collins from promoting his views on science and religion, but why should I support or encourage him?

    Even if I think he is doing some good by encouraging religious people to try and understand evolution instead of blindly rejecting it, I still do not approve of his message. I think his apologetics are unconvincing and contain nothing I have not been exposed to before. If he finds them convincing, then I have to conclude that he’s either falling prey to some blindspot (my working assumption and no big deal; we all have blindspots) or consciously defrauding his audience (much worse). Whichever it is, he can go ahead and do it without my encouragement.

    I don’t think Collins is even all that useful to the cause of science education. There are other scientists who demonstrate that you don’t have to be an atheist, but they’re not out there making a spectacle of themselves proselytizing.

    The constitution obliges me to respect his right to express his beliefs. It does not require me to offer him support or encouragement. I don’t think my support or encouragement is helpful anyway. I think he’s just plain wrong and would sound dishonest trying to pretend otherwise. So I find it extremely insulting to be told that “we” “should” do something at least assuming I’m part of “we.”

  53. #53 AndyS
    August 8, 2006

    Great White Wonder,

    Are you sure you only have three concerns? I’m guessing you have dozens more. I’m so glad you are here to remind us that religious people have feelings, too, and there is more than one kind of evangelical Christian. Keep up the great work.

    It’s not their feelings I’m concerned about, it’s their power as a voting block. You may have noticed we atheists don’t have a whole lot of political clout. Learning to support (or at least not attack) those Christians who advocate evolution and good science — especially the evangelical ones — is merely in our own self-interest.

    Now that we’ve got that out of the way, can you explain to me why criticizing Collins’ inane nonsense — which he published in a book and is now promoting in interviews to the press — makes me a “brownshirt”?

    You are taking this a bit too personally. What I said was, “This thread makes me think white lab coats are being worn over brown shirts.” I was thinking of how brownshirts symbolize intolerance, especially the kind of intolerance that extends into every minor deviation from the partyline. Sure, Collins has his flaws but attacking him for what are, at least to me, minor ones when he clearly supports and advocates for the major ones is counterproductive and, well, not too bright.

  54. #54 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 8, 2006

    The references you provided seems to me to make Collins position worse.

    The American Scientific Affiliation “is a fellowship of men and women in science and disciplines that relate to science who share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science”, but is about “Science in Christian Perspective” and apologetics, which is not a commitment to integrity as stated.

    Of course they present creationistic essays. One such is ” A Theory of Theistic Evolution as an Alternative to the Naturalistic Theory” ( ).
    “The author considers recent papers by Howard Van Till, Phillip Johnson, and Ian Thompson dealing with God’s sovereignty and the origin and evolution of living organisms.” “He insists that the origin of new genetic information is the major unanswered question of a naturalistic theory and proposes an intelligent cause (God) as a continuing provider of new genetic information.”

    Another essay is on ” Presuppositions of Science as Related to Origins” ( ). “I want to introduce the term “intelligent cause”which was suggested by several of the philosophers of science at the Tacoma Conference.” “I believe the original presupposition-i.e., that everything can be explained in terms of natural processes-is no longer tenable.”

    They have also other terrible essays, such as the one on “A Christian View of the Foundations of Statistics” ( ). It equivocates between bayesian estimates and frequentist probabilities. It concludes: “But the view of Statistics sketched here also has implications for t the teaching of Statistics by the Christian. Students should not only be taught “the facts” which modern textbooks present. They should also know that there are different presumptions as to what constitutes a “fact,” as well as different interpretations and uses of them.” This is the same mindset as creationism uses on education.

    While the essay of Collins are less provocative on science he still digs himself in deeper.

    He quotes the bible as if it discusses science: “Psalm 8 refers to the interface between science and faith.”

    He seems to misunderstand junk DNA: “So I think we should probably remove the term “junk” from the genome. At least most of it looks like it may very well have some kind of function.”

    He think on abiogenesis that “it is noteworthy that this particular area of evolution, the earliest step, is still very much in disarray”, not that it is a young science with few or no observations.

  55. #55 windy
    August 8, 2006

    Sorry about feeding the troll, but

    Thwaite, c’mon. Don´t tell me you haven’t read the total debunking of the crappy oarsmen metaphor done by Gould in the fat book. Oarsmen are additive, genes are not.

    I couldn’t believe my eyes reading that comment. And you presume to lecture biologists about what is good science and what is not? Ever heard about additive genetic variation? Quantitative genetics?

    Sure, all genetic variation is not additive, but why on earth would we try to cross-breed animals and plants to combine desirable traits if such products were completely unpredictable?

    I also have been under the impression that oarsmen are unique, variable individuals, not clones, and may perform differently depending on how they match the other members of the team. If genes are not additive, neither are oarsmen.

  56. #56 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 8, 2006

    “Learning to support (or at least not attack) those Christians who advocate evolution and good science — especially the evangelical ones — is merely in our own self-interest.”

    But the point is that Collins is bad on science outside his speciality in his effort to promote religion.

    “I was thinking of how brownshirts symbolize intolerance, especially the kind of intolerance that extends into every minor deviation from the partyline.”

    This is the fallacy of Godwin’s law. I also note that what GWW does is exactly what Collins does, express his beliefs. Which seems to make you the intolerant one here.

  57. #57 Scott Hatfield
    August 8, 2006


    ASA is a good resource, even if you’re not a member–as I am. They differ markedly from other such organizations for four significant reasons:

    1) They have been around in one form or another prior to WWII, and their on-line archives contain five decades worth of material

    2) While they have some young-earth creationist (YEC) subscribers, they are actually rather few in number. The hard-core YEC types tried to take over the organization in its infancy, lost the power struggle and largely went elsewhere

    3) They refrain from any sort of detailed doctrinal affirmation and do not involve themselves in any with politics

    4) They recognize a diversity of views on many topics, but do not require members to hold any particular viewpoint.

    It’s the last point I’d really like to emphasize. They do publish creationist stuff. They also publish theistic evolution stuff. I’ve seen pro-ID and anti-ID arguments. You’ll note, for example, that Collins is critical of ID and acknowledges that not everyone attending his talk may appreciate that position. It would be a mistake to think that a small sample of ASA papers constitutes any sort of group manifesto. After all, I’m a member in good standing and I would say my views are quite a bit more pro-evolution than Collins.

    I agree that his take on both ‘junk DNA’ and abiogenesis as glossed are pretty superficial and could be taken as misleading, but the reference to Psalm 8 is not really that damning. I don’t really think he’s trying to make the Bible appear as if it discusses science. Read Psalm 8: it’s topic is the natural world, and the sense of awe and wonder it evokes. The natural world inspires both believer and non-believer, and the inspiration seems to lead to different sort of claims which seemingly is the source of a lot of the head-butting between science and religion. In that context, his ‘interface’ remark is pretty innocuous.


  58. #58 windy
    August 9, 2006

    That is, if an oarsman does well in one team, but poorly in the other, whether he can be selected for or not will be context-dependent.

    And with sexual reproduction, all genes/alleles will be selected for being good mixers, regardless of whether they are ‘selfish’ or not. Your points argue for gene-based selection effects, not against them.

    Of course genes with additive effects exist, but we would die of old age asking a developmetal biologist to list cases where it is not like that. Moreover, there is the kind of unpopular (in this darwinian world) but quite real question of just how relevant truly are additive gene effects for evolution, and not just artficial slection…the answer is, not that much, but I’m not feeling generous enough today to give away the explanation haha (though someone may realize why)

    Holy shit, this gets worse. Sorry to ask but are you going insane?


    Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection stated in 1930 is that the rate of increase of the mean fitness is equal to the additive component of the genetic variance!!

    If you want challenges to that, statements about when non-additive variation is important, attempts to verify it, there’s 75 years of research on it. If you read those and still don’t like the current state of the art, do the math, like Fisher did. But don’t claim biologists have been avoiding the question.

  59. #59 Squeaky
    August 9, 2006

    Just so you don’t feel like you are alone in your position, I agree with you. I have taken the same position in the past, with mostly the same results. It is good to know there are people on both sides who see that extremism drives the sides further and further apart, and ultimately does science a terrible disservice.

    Thanks for your input.

  60. #60 Alexander Vargas
    August 9, 2006

    “And with sexual reproduction, all genes/alleles will be selected for being good mixers, regardless of whether they are ‘selfish’ or not. Your points argue for gene-based selection effects, not against them”

    Huh? Am I the only one who does not get what you mean? All I’m telling you is that epistatic interactions exist, therefore, selectability of a gene is context dependent, and you come up with these mental gymnastics, that selection will favor good mixers (as if epistatic interactions that make a gene non selectable would disappear by… selection!! hahaha) and moreover you say that this will happen regardless of their effect on the organism’s fitness? You think genes are just “so” autonomous, huh? Looks like you are chaisng your tail on a load of rhetorical crap. See if you can propose an empirical implication of this your explanation.

    “Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection stated in 1930 is that the rate of increase of the mean fitness is equal to the additive component of the genetic variance!!”

    Which is exactly why it is unpopular, in this darwinian world, to point out the ugly truth, that what fisher talks about is porbably not importnt in evolution. Of course people have been concerned, but only recently we have the molecular resolution for field and experimental evolution, and the fact is that additivity is not important, yet no one wants to point it out.

    “Do the math????” Present the math. Show me my mathematical errors, if that’s what it truly boils down to. I hope you were not just talking out of your ass. Bring out some real math!!!

  61. #61 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 9, 2006

    “And I admit I am conflicted on the issue, because I do understand and accept the point that science needs to be honest. It does, however, seem to be possible to maintain the honesty without undermining Collin’s efforts to promote Science to the Christian community.”

    That isn’t possible if he distorts the science.

    It is also hard to understand why keeping science and its social projection honest is considered to be an extremist view since it is what scientists generally want.

    It also seems intolerant to attack this view on completely loose grounds. “What-if” doesn’t cut it in science, why should it be considered here?

    What says that not carefully explaining science instead of a distorted christian view of it would be successful?

    Why should dishonesty automatically be a good survival value for a political agenda? Experience says otherwise.

    Questions abound; good answers are few. But it is clear that the above citation claims the impossible.

  62. #62 Alexander Vargas
    August 9, 2006

    Sounds like you believe that genes with too many epistatic interactions will be eliminated in favor of genes that “save themselves” by a completely autonomous, self contained effect, that may or may not involve the fitness of the organism. Yet, reality is, it is CHOCK-FULL of epistatic interactions out there, thats right, not what your model would predict.
    And you say that when I point out that standing context-dependency of gene effects, this reinforces your view…well that’s just nutty.

  63. #63 arensb
    August 9, 2006

    Every time I read something like this:

    If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it.

    I’m reminded of my High School physics teacher, who pointed out that gravitational and electromagnetic attraction is proportional to r^-2. Or rather, to r^k, where k = -2.000000 to as many decimals as we could measure. He added that physicists are naturally suspicious of integers, so they went looking for an explanation for this number.

    A geometrical explanation presented itself: if object A threw out a bunch of particles in all directions, the number of these particles that reached object B would fall off in proportion to the square of the distance between them, simply because the surface of a sphere is proportional to the square of its radius. And we know that electric attraction is carried by photons, so this explanation makes some kind of sense.

    So whenever I hear that universal constants had to have certain values to within some tiny tolerance, I can’t help wondering whether that’s like being grateful that pi is pi, and not 3.15.

  64. #64 Steve LaBonne
    August 9, 2006

    You’re wasting your time and raising your blood pressure for nothing, windy; the troll clearly has no clue about population genetics and is incapable of buying one. Just ignore it until PZ gets around to banning it.

  65. #65 Alexander Vargas
    August 9, 2006

    Honestly, what’s going on? We’re just talking some science here!!! Jeez…can’t the dawkobots take it??? They just pop up, no arguments, cheerleading or bitterly pleading for censorship…

  66. #66 Alexander Vargas
    August 9, 2006

    Epistasis, just the environment of a gene? Fair enough. Because it also happens, that genes may have an effect or not, depending on the environmental surroundings of the organism…

  67. #67 Alexander Vargas
    August 9, 2006

    But windy, this does no eliminate the problem of context dependency, it only reformulates it. That is, the “environment” of a gene (be it another gene or the organism’s surroundings) can mechanistically determine whether the gene has any means by which it could be selected or not. Its not in the gene itself. You must realize, specially given the actual importnace of standing epistasis, that this IS, indeed, a very serious problem for the selfish gene scheme. This is why selfish genes are not mainstream evolutionary theory, however popular they may be among paperback readers.

  68. #68 Alexander Vargas
    August 10, 2006

    “I’ll be looking for your article disproving Fisher’s theorems and 75 years of evolutionary research in Nature. Be sure to tell us if the Evolutionary Atheist Conspiracy rejects it for having too much epistasis talk in it. Toodles”

    See, you say stuff like that, you make yourself look biased. I’m not saying that Fishers theorems are wrong, and who knows whatever you mean with 75 years of science. Are you conflating “evolutionary research” with “selfish genes”? I know you can do better than that.
    What I have brought into question, is how important genes with additive effects in fact are, given the profusion of epistasis, and yes, related to that, of course I consider the gene centered view of selfish genes is false.
    (Can’t dawkobots acknowledge that opposition can be serious? They always toss around silly fluff and act like fundies).

    “All genes being selfish is debatable, *some* genes being definitely ‘selfish’ _is_ a part of mainstream evolutionary research”.

    Well, you move closer to the point. Let me help you a bit. All genes being selfsh is not debatable, it is false. And many examples of selection at the single gene level get debunked or eternally stay at some sort of limbo between hypothesis and fact.
    As I said, at least you ackowlegde that not al genes are selfish therefore, it is natural to question waht is the relevance of the selfish gene scheme for actually understanding evolution (yes, beyond just stating “they created us body and mind”, heehee)

    “And the environment of an organism can mechanistically determine whether an organism has any means to be selected or not”

    Truly so. This point allows us to question if selection is truly as relevant as some make it to be (remember the importance of constraints, the origin of variation)

    “This does not mean that organisms aren’t selected”

    Pfff of course not, but there you go again, in the end you are ignoring the implications that selectability is environment-dependent.

  69. #69 Keith Douglas
    August 10, 2006

    Scott Hatfield, Torbjörn Larsson: Fine tuned in the theory, in the sense that the value of various parameters has to be put in by hand, sure. I agree with that. But that does not rule out a lowever level theory showing that the parameters are fixed consequences of more basic laws. (Or the converse; claiming either way goes beyond the evidence.) I guess I don’t know at what point a blatant error (like Collins’) becomes pseudoscience or the like. The more crucial error in any case is the fallacy pointed out by Douglas Adams in that “puddle story” people have discussed elsewhere. Incidentally also, if you are a Bayesian (and I am not), there is also the Jeffreys argument which shows that the anthropic coincidences are actually guaranteed after a fashion in a naturalistic universe and are less likely in a theistic cosmology. (I think ultimately the latter is incoherent, but granting the premiss…)

    arensb: Sort of. After all, the nuclear forces do not fall off as the inverse square. Incidentally, the same argument was used (I believe first by Leibniz) to “prove” that space was 3 dimensional. (There is a mistake in the reasoning, of course, because it assumes that forces have to propagate throughout space and not a restricted subspace: in that sense it begs the question.)

  70. #70 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 10, 2006

    Keith, Scott:
    Obviously I made a mistake.

    Keith said originally “But the crucial premiss (that the constants of nature are variable in the way desired) is not a scientific finding.”

    That is true. I misread that as claiming that mechanisms such as chance (tautological anthropic principle) was not scientific hypotheses. They are, but “claiming either way goes beyond the evidence”.

    I don’t particularly like the two realistic anthropic principles, as I understand them – the tautological without considering a probability distribution, and the weak that seems to consider such a distribution. But I can live with them, and Joe Polchinski, wellknown theorist, makes that point that the weak principle is currently parsimonous due to the interconnect between the meager ideas that constitutes todays knowledge.

    I definitely don’t like the confusion between bayesian estimates and probability. Probabilities with welldefined quantitative meaning (ever better accuracy with measuring) are only modelled correctly by frequentist probability. They are also the only probabilities predicted by meaningful physical theories. Though I think constraining sparse events with estimates can be useful.

    I wasn’t aware of the Jefferys (& Ikeda & Sober) argument.

    After some googling I believe it is summarised as “Thus, the correct comparison is between (A) the probability that “the constants are right” given design and our own existence, versus (B) the probability that “the constants are right” given a naturalistic universe and our own existence. Since in a naturalistic universe our own existence implies that the constants must be right, this means that (B) is equal to 1. What about (A)? Clearly, since probabilities are always less than or equal to 1, (A) cannot be larger than 1, so the ratio of (B) to (A) must be at least 1. This means that observing that “the constants are right” cannot undermine the naturalistic hypothesis.” ( ).

    It is a clever argument to use on bayesians, which many users of anthropic reasoning are. Thanks for the heads up!

    “the same argument was used (I believe first by Leibniz) to “prove” that space was 3 dimensional.”
    Interesting idea. The question begging isn’t large if one assumes universality, but it still misses the goal completely.

    It reminds me of the efforts to see if gravity is larger-dimensional in a string brane world scenario. (Which would explain its weakness without finetuning BTW.) The force behaviour is probed at very small distances to find out.

  71. #71 Alexander Vargas
    August 10, 2006

    You know, Windy, there is so much silliness in all these adaptationist debates, specially on topics like sexual conflict and such. Last time I read this whole idea connecting methilation (oh most epigenetic) to gene selection, polyandry, polyginy and body size. It was a truly sorry mess, conceptually and empirically. So I’d really like to check on these superstar cases that you are talking about, and see if they convince me. Have I said that selection for a selfish gene cannot ever drive evolution? Nope. So bring it on!

  72. #72 Alexander Vargas
    August 10, 2006

    Jeez well of course I knew about stuff like B chromosmes, wolbachia and parthenogenesis, and letal maternal effects… so lemme just ask you guys a question.. do you consider all those cases cited in that wikipedia article to be at the same level as to demonstrating how selfish genes can drive evolution? Or would you say some are more clear cut than others? So we can get to the core of stuff and thus avoid wasting time on debunking the easy ones…

  73. #73 Alexander Vargas
    August 11, 2006

    I think that to see those cases as “selfish genes” is a amtter of preferences. Antagonistic interactions can be found all over biology, within and between organisms.
    Nonadaptive changes at the cellular-molecular level happen all the time and may stay, despite that they may not increase fitness, or may even lower it. This to me just illustrates the non-pervasiveness of selection at the organismal level. It seems to me absurd to think these cases illustrates cellular-molecular elements “rising above” or “controlling” the organism level (as in the “lumbering robots” visions) . Because quite plainly these meolcuar-cellular changes cannot go beyond the preservation of the life cycle of the organism that harbors it. It completely depends on it.

    Windy, about the killer-resistant mechanism of “meiotic” drive, if a parent has a killer an resistance genes, but another has resistance genes, isn’t that enough to render the killer gene non-selectable?

  74. #74 Torbjörn Larsson
    August 14, 2006

    “I realised that since byesians estimates are used successfully to investigate parsimonity of models, it is in fact usable as such even for events that happens no or one time.”

    Ie to compare models, as Jefferys does, even for other purposes than parsimonity.